Assessing Course Development

Assessing Course Development and New Teaching Practices

Assessing the success of a new course, assignment, or teaching strategy can provide valuable information for your own teaching development and for formal evaluation of your teaching. The information you collect through these assessment exercises can be:

  • included in a teaching dossier,
  • shared with others interested in teaching in your field or institution,
  • used to contextualize other forms of teaching evaluations (such as student course evaluations) as part of a formal review of your teaching

The information below provides some general tips on planning assessment measures.

Planning your assessment

In planning any assessment exercise, take some time to specify:

  • The learning activity you will be assessing (e.g. a particular assignment, a class activity, an entire course).
  • The desired outcomes of that learning activity: how will you know it was successful?

Please see Developing Learning Outcomes for more information.

You may also wish to take some time to note your motivation for implementing a new learning activity and the planning process through which you developed the activity, particularly if you plan to describe this activity and its assessment in your teaching dossier or as part of a teaching review.

Evaluation goals and benefits

You can use the results of your evaluation to:

  • Receive overall and diagnostic feedback about your teaching and about the effectiveness of new teaching activities.
  • Collect documentation about your teaching for your teaching dossier or for formal teaching evaluation (for example, for tenure or promotion).
  • Monitor your own teaching activities in the context of departmental, divisional, or institutional program goals or learning outcomes.

Options for collecting information

There are two primary types of information that you can collect from students.

Perception of a particular learning activity. This information will tell you whether participants perceive the experience to have been valuable (or challenging, or enjoyable) in the immediate term. You can gather these reactions through:

  • Student evaluations: you may use a standard evaluation, or create one specific to the activity being assessed
  • Student focus groups: devote a portion of a following class to discussing student reaction to a completed activity
  • Self-assessment and reflection: keep a teaching journal or conduct a self-evaluation.

Test the actual knowledge or skills students have gained from the learning activity. In general, you can best achieve this by comparing the work of students who have participated in the learning activity being assessed with those who have not, as long as both groups of students have had otherwise similar preparation and experiences. For example, you can administer the same test or assignment as in previous semesters, but compare grades or responses between the two groups of students. The information that you receive from this kind of assessment will be affected by external and environmental factors outside of your control –– for example, the time of day the class is held, or the particular group of students being assessed. The information you receive could be quite useful – but should generally be analyzed in a flexible and qualitative framework.

Other means of assessing a learning activity

  • Peer evaluation of teaching: invite a colleague to observe and provide feedback on the activity being assessed (CTSI can also provide feedback based on an in-class observation).
  • Survey or discuss student performance with instructors in subsequent courses.
  • Identify benchmarks or outcomes for student performance or learning, and monitor their ability to meet these expectations (see Diamond, 1998).

Considerations in educational assessment

The evaluation of teaching is a notoriously difficult effort because we know of very few ways to assess student learning directly. We rely instead on proxies: the assessment of teaching behaviours we know to be correlated with improved student learning; the evaluation of student academic performance (which will be influenced by the assessment instruments used and the way in which the material was taught); or student self-evaluation. Each of these proxies is itself difficult to assess reliably. In developing assessment measures for teaching, it may be difficult to identify what should, and can, in fact be assessed. Instructors can mitigate these challenges by identifying clear assessment goals and learning outcomes.

Furthermore, the evaluation of teaching is difficult because of the inability or undesirability of creating controlled experiments or assessment measures. Any teaching activity has a substantial number of external influences, from previous academic preparation of the students to group dynamics to gender bias to class size. As such, attempting to compare groups of students – or even to compare the same group at different times – will inevitably introduce a number of variables to the assessment exercise. It is also frequently undesirable to create “control groups” because of the potentially negative effect participation in such a group may have on those students. Instructors must teach they way they believe to be most beneficial to students at that time, and to withhold a teaching strategy or activity from a group of students is not desirable. Whenever possible, the process of educational assessment should not affect any student’s actual learning or classroom experience.

Further resources on teaching, course, and program assessment websites:

McKeachie, W. J., & Kaplan, M. (1996). Persistent problems in evaluating college teaching. American Association of Higher Education Bulletin, 6, 5-8.

National Institute for Science Education. (n.d.). Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide.

Books and articles:

Diamond, R. (1998). Chapter 10: Designing assessment instruments and procedures. In Designing & assessing courses & curricula: A practical guide (pp. 139-152). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. [Available in the CTSI Resource Centre]

Felder, R. & Brent, R. (2004). Random thoughts……How to evaluate teaching. Chemical Engineering Education 38(3), 200- 202. [PDF]

Maki, Peggy L. (2004). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Wolf, P., Hill, A., & Evers, F. (2006). Handbook for Curriculum Assessment. Retrieved May 7, 2008 [PDF]

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